A Religious Studies Guide to WrestleMania

On the first page of Imagining Religion, historian of religion Jonathan Z. Smith writes:

For the self-conscious student of religion, no datum possess intrinsic interest. It is of value only insofar as it can serve as exempli gratis of some fundamental issue in the imagination of religion.

For Smith, and I agree with him, scholars should choose particular examples as data that suit particular questions that they want to answer. In this way, the scholar of religion is not bound by “the boundaries of canon nor of community” in their pursuits. Thus, the data for religious studies is not limited to things that seem “religious” in the common use of the term. Furthermore, it is not the “religious” data that directs our research, but the larger theoretical questions that we seek to answer through the data we select.

This brings me to WrestleMania. Today WWE will put on their 35th annual WrestleMania show and I think there are three aspects of the show that could be of interest to a scholar of religion in the Smithian vein. To be clear, I don’t think a religious studies approach to WrestleMania should go find the things that seem obviously religious happening at the event, nor am I arguing that pro wrestling is also a religion. Rather, I am pointing out a few places where a scholar asking certain questions might find some data to theorize with.

So, I present a Religious Studies Guide WrestleMania 35.

The Crowd

The first thing a scholar of religion could pay attention to at WrestleMania is the crowd. The goal of professional wrestling is to generate a certain emotional response in the audience, both live in the building and at home watching television. There are times when the writers want the fans to boo and times they want them to cheer. The good guys, called “babyfaces” are meant to get a “pop” or reaction from the crowd. When a match reaches its climax and the good guy wins, the goal is to get the biggest pop possible from the audience. Similarly, the “heels” or bad guys, try to get “heat” or boos from the fans. If the bad guy is written to win the match the goal is to get the most heat possible on him at the end. Similarly, surprises or “swerves” can also generate a pop from the audience. The louder and more emotional the response from the fans, the better job the writers and wrestlers have done. Fans know this and they watch or attend wrestling shows because they want a show that will take them on this emotional ride. They want a good reason to pop or boo. They want to be surprised, angered, excited, and amazed. A daredevil move, a surprise appearance, a big win, or a tragic loss can all give the emotional reaction a fan wants to leave satisfied.

As a scholar of religion, I find this focus on emotional experience fascinating and useful as a comparison. I think about the revivals in America during the nineteenth century, Charles Finney’s lectures on “new measures” that would generate revivals, or Jonathan Edwards writing in the eighteenth century about how you can tell if the emotional responses during a revival are authentic. Rather than seeing religious experience as unique or sui generis, I wonder how the emotional experiences often labeled as “religious” and the emotional experiences of wrestling fans are similar. Are there similar structures, rituals, or narratives at work? If pro wrestling is all about telling stories that bring people to a point of emotional experience and physical reaction, how can it help us better understand the stories within so-called religious rituals or communities that also produce emotional experiences and physical reactions? When is “the spirit” a “pop”?

Kayfabe 

Despite the visceral reactions generated in fans, wrestling happens in a fictitious world. “Kayfabe” refers to the fictional world of the wrestling show. For example, the two wrestlers Kane and The Undertaker are kayfabe brothers. The characters are brothers in the storyline but the two performers themselves are not actually related. Another way to describe the difference between the fictional and real worlds of wrestling is “work” versus “shoot.” In the language of the business, wrestling matches aren’t “fake” they are “worked.” A “work” is part of the show, it’s predetermined, it’s scripted, it’s part of the plan. A “shoot” on the other hand is “real”. A wrestler’s injury, for example, can be a work in order to further the plot of a story or it can be a “shoot” and the performer is legitimately injured and can’t perform.

Kayfabe used to be an iron clad law of pro wrestling. As late as the 1990s babyfaces and heels would not be seen in public together, eat together, travel together, or share rooms on the road. Since the mid 1990s, however, kayfabe has been crumbling. Fans are now “smart” and they know that wrestling is a work. But the reactions and emotional experiences that fans want from wrestling depend on the fans getting worked. This has meant that wrestlers and writers have had to play with the lines between work and shoot, breaking the rules of kayfabe along the way.

The build of many of the stories heading into WrestleMania have featured a number of moments where kayfabe has been bent or broken and the line between work and shoot has become blurred. First, the story leading into the match between Roman Reigns and Drew McIntyre has used Roman Reins actual battle with leukemia. Last October, Reigns gave a shoot announcement in the ring on Monday Night RAW saying that he’d have to relinquish the WWE Universal Title and take time away from wrestling because of a recurrence of leukemia.  Then this past February he returned to announce his cancer was in remission. WWE has used the real leukemia illness in various stories about Reigns departure and return but the build to the match with McIntyre has used the illness to get McIntrye over as a major heel. McIntyre told Reigns, “You may have beaten cancer, but you can’t beat me.”

The WWE Championship match between Kofi Kingston and Daniel Bryan has also blurred the lines between work and shoot in the ways that the story has (not) been about Kofi’s race. Kofi is part of a trio of African American wrestlers known as the New Day. They are arguably the most popular tag team of wrestlers in the industry. Only three African-Americans have ever held a major championship in the long history of the WWE: The Rock (whose father was a black wrestler), Mark Henry, and Booker T. Kofi could be the fourth if he wins on Sunday. But the story of Kofi’s road to WrestleMania has been the story of a black man forced to overcome unnecessary hurdles that white wrestlers do not. Mr. McMahon, the kayfabe character of WWE Chairman Vince McMahon and the onscreen WWE corporate authority, put Kofi and the New Day through grueling gauntlet matches to earn his title shot. Along the way the New Day began to argue that Mr. McMahon did not want “someone like us” as the WW Champion and face of the company. New Day member Big E even posted a video criticizing the WWE for the way it treats “people like us.”

By blurring the lines between work and shoot the WWE has turned the Bryan/Kofi feud into a critique of its own racist past. As one Ian Williams wrote at Deadspin:

This is an attempt at a scripted solution to a persistent and ongoing real-world problem, and in that sense it’s nothing new for WWE. As the Wrestlesplania co-host Kath Barbadoro has said, WWE commodifies dissent, both from its workers and its fans. If the workers are unhappy, if something terrible happens, if the promotion’s institutional bigotry is too glaring to ignore, the fix is right there—simply leave it alone until it can be incorporated into the broader story, at which point it is just part of the show, and no realer than the rest of it.

WWE has blurred work and shoot to make the Kofi storyline into a story about race that never says the words “race”, “black”, or “African American.”

The blurring between work and shoot and the crumbling of kayfabe should be of interest to any scholars of religion who take “belief” as a category worth interrogating. Fans know that wrestling is a work. Yet they choose to believe in kayfabe because it brings them entertainment and joy. Indeed when RAW Women’s Champion and former UFC fighter Ronda Rousey broke kayfabe on Twitter and used the dreaded “F word” (“fake”) fans were annoyed. Many fans resent it when performers break kayfabe on camera because it ruins the ability for them to suppress their disbelief. Belief in pro wrestling, then, is a choice. Belief is not something one carries around in the “heart” or “mind” or “soul” but it is a choice one makes to engage the stories, rituals, and experiences of pro wrestling. This might be useful for scholars interested in how belief functions in other places, especially those we often label “religious.” I am also interested in how the crumbling of kayfabe and its reinforcement by fans mirrors processes of secularization that scholars have noted, but that is a whole different blog post.

The Historic Main Event

Finally, scholars of gender may be interested in the main event, the biggest match that will go on at the end of the show. The match is between three women wrestlers: Becky Lynch, RAW Women’s Champion Ronda Rousey, and Smackdown Live Women’s Champion Charlotte Flair (from left to right above), for both of the WWE women’s championships (There are two top championships for men and women in WWE, one for each cable TV show, RAW and Smackdown Live. I know it’s confusing). This is the first time a women’s match has ever been the main event at WrestleMania, a historic achievement in its own right. But digging down into the storyline going into the match, there are a number of things that might be of use to a scholar interested in the construction and representation of gender in popular culture.

For example, this main event signals the larger change in roles for women in pro wrestling that has occurred over the past twenty years. During the height of wrestling’s popularity inthe late 1990s women functioned mostly as sex objects, managers, and side shows. The WWE, then called the WWF, referred to their women on television as “Divas.” In the last five years, however, a new generation of women have been represented as legitimate wrestlers. In 2016 the Divas Championship, which featured a pink butterfly design belt was replaced by a Women’s Championship with a belt that looks just like the comparable men’s title only with a white leather strap. At the same time, the women in WWE have diversified across race, sexual orientation, and body shape. Look no further than the participants in the women’s battle royal or the four teams in the Women’s Tag Team Championship match at WrestleMania for evidence of this diversity.

Of the three participants in the main event match, Becky Lynch may also be of interest to the scholar of religion interested in the performance of gender. A year ago, Becky Lynch wasn’t supposed to be in the match. Ronda Rousey, who made her name as arguably the best women’s mixed martial arts fighter in history, debuted at last year’s WrestleMania and quickly rose to the top as the RAW Women’s Champion. Meanwhile, Charlotte Flair is the daughter of Ric Flair, the greatest professional wrestler in history and the current Smackdown Live Women’s Champion. Last year’s Rousey debut was setting the stage for a big showdown between these two big name stars. But then Becky Lynch happened. Becky had been a babyface, and the fans thought she was fine but were never that interested in her. Then the WWE writers decided to turn her into a heel. They had her  attack her friend Charlotte (who was a face at the time, I know wrestling is confusing) after a match and rather than booing her the fans started cheering. What had meant to be a heel turn just made Becky more popular. And here’s the part that is worth theorizing, Becky took on a new nickname: The Man.

“The Man” Becky Lynch had her popularity solidified at the top of WWE by accident when another wrestler mistakenly landed a forearm across her face and broke her nose during an episode of WWE RAW. Becky rolled with it and the image of her standing in the crowd triumphant with blood running down her face became iconic.

To go even deeper, stay with me here non-wresting fans, Becky’s new The Man character began to draw comparisons to an older wrestler, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Austin had also been a heel that the fans chose to cheer and he also had an iconic moment with blood running down his face during his match against Bret Hart at WrestleMania 13. A bloody Austin passed out rather than submit in his match again Hart. That match with Hart set Austin off on a course to become the most popular wrestler in the 1990s.

Once fans started making the Lynch/Austin comparisons the writers at WWE followed suit. They wrote Becky into a number of situations that mimicked Austin’s storyline from twenty years ago. For example, they both had dramatic arrests–though to be fair, on this past week’s episode of RAW all three women in the main event got arrested in the storyline. Like Austin at his peak, Becky Lynch is the most popular wrestler in WWE right now. “The Man” is on top and many expect her to win both titles tonight.

Is there anything here for the scholar or religion who has questions or theories about the construction, production, or representation of gender? Are there male dominated spaces within “religious” institutions, cultures, or communities that might be worth comparing to the so-called “women’s evolution” in WWE? What could a scholar make of a main event match that signals a new era for the representation of women in professional wrestling but that features a character who became popular by taking on the moniker “The Man” (and selling her t-shirt that says “THE MAN” to men in the audience) and whose character was written to follow the story arch of one of the most famous men in wrestling history? How is the transition from “Divas” to “Women’s Champions” reflective or not of changing constructions of gender in American society? If we theorize the performance of gender, how do we read Becky Lynch’s performance as “The Man?” What do we make of Lynch challenging the most popular current men’s wrestler, John Cena, in a segment like this And of course, will The Man win tonight?

These are three examples that I’ve seen on the road to tonight’s WrestleMania where my training as a scholar of religion has run into my lifelong love of pro wrestling. But I don’t want to turn to pro wrestling as some sort of fan boy. Rather, I want to hold up tonight’s show as an example that religion is an ordinary human activity, like pro wrestling, and so it can be compared to wrestling or any number of other human activities. Furthermore, the tools, theories, and questions of religious studies prepare the scholar of religion to turn attention to any number of cultural phenomena, including wrestling, if it helps them answer the intellectual questions they are interested in.

That said, I really hope Becky wins.

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